In January 1990, I received a neatly-typed, logo-headed reply from the press and publicity office at Brookside Productions Ltd. Brookside, youth, was a Channel 4 TV soap opera, running from 1982 to 2003, set – politically, comically, dramatically and romantically – in Liverpool; the loved child of inspirational TV wolfman, Phil Redmond. The letter thanked me for writing to Phil, and went on to say that the footage I’d seen repeatedly on the living-room tellies of the Close’s residents, was called ‘Magic Rabbits’, and was specially made by the Brookside Production Team. “Although it is only ever on screen for a couple of minutes,” wrote Lisa, “it is proving to be a very popular item!”
Over twenty years on, and I’m still chasing the Magic Rabbits of TV-land – the prop pretences sprinkled like a fairy dust of reality across the sets of dramas. But how my rabbit-hunter sights are now fixed on bars of soaps… hang on… I mean the bars in the pubs in soap operas.
Take the Queen Vic in Eastenders. Rising to the challenge of changes in product placement laws and the swapping-outs of real brands,* the props team magicked up Thames Bitter, Chambers, and Jenkins; not bad names, no, but such a pity they only had five minutes left of that creative huddle to ‘design’ and make (scissors, cereal packet) the actual ‘brands’ and badges – and no time at all to write them into any beer-ordering script. ‘Pint, please, Kat.’ In fairness, the crafting all went into the premium bottled lager, Skoe – back up – Skoe? – the Magic Rabbit equivalent of sticking two twiglets into a potato and calling it Flopsy. At least no-one gets scripted to bar-call that one.
Ah, the common call of the young soap male. That ‘a bottle of beer, please’ should niggle (me) more than ‘a pint’, is down to the former’s making less sense as a locally stocked constant. A vaguery in a froth of variables. ‘Bottle of beer, please, Tina’, ‘Righto cock – that’ll be some money.’
At Corrie’s Rovers they do make a better fist of pint-serves – and have thankfully dispensed (ha!) with the former cheat of the barmaid simply handing a poured beer up from under the counter, with the thinnest deceit of a hand-pull, in the time it took for the cock to confirm he was indeed ‘alright’. These days, if you look, Corrie barstaff really do seem to pump that engine.
But how the inconsistency troubles: Norris calls ‘half a bitter’, Tyrone calls ‘a pint’ and evil Owen (star of nineties Carling ad) ‘pint of beer’. I don’t know how the new barmaid knows, but I do find myself drawn to Norris’s relative exactness.
Pint-wise at the Rovers, of course, it was always likely to be Newton & Ridley’s or nowt. Well it was, until Stallion reared up. Stallion Lager – seemingly best enjoyed in cans, armpit-warm and freshly unpopped off a four-pack. Stallion, mind, is also available on tap at upward-Nick’s Bistro. On a row of low-line fonts. You know, the kind that British Legions ditched in the nineties. (By the way, I know about the J.W. Lees collaborations and the marketed Newton & Ridley’s; but that too still looks so… bleh.)
How beers are ‘done’ so half-assed by these ratings giants is, to me, an avoidable shame. I know, I’m of the industry; and my mum-in-law the nurse likewise can’t stomach the made-ups in Casualty. But for a show so fanatically fizzing with drinking, Eastenders appears to put cock-all effort into making its central licensed premise credible. And please, Coronation Street, in all other ways diamond, jubilant of the beautiful north, pop your best clogs on and together let’s go hunting for some better magic bunnies.
* One poignant outcome was the removal of the Carling ‘C’ font from the Queen Vic – a specially commissioned one-off two-thirds-scaled countermount. I know because it was my wife who commissioned it. Rather neatly, I kinda joined her on the back bar with ‘my’ first-run pint bottle of a lower alcohol effort. Both of us are available for joint appearances, opening summer fêtes, etc.
In Dev’s Corrie shop and the Minit-Mart in Enders (check out also the luxury of the Minit-Mart’s carrier bags… some seriously quality PVC. Yes, I was doing a Fat Boy finger-hand-flick on ‘quality’) the branding rules are reversed, and the screen’s suddenly ablaze with household names in current and refreshed liveries. Good news for paying and non-paying brand owners alike, cos there were some well-old pieces in there, including, in Dev’s shop, a bottle of vodka shots that’d been there for seven years. A tram driver eventually bought it (if you will) off the shelf in 2010. This is something, I understand, to do with the placement law applying to brands being incidental to a scene. So Cobra beer can be on at the Argee Bhajee because the bar isn’t where the acting is focussed; it’s a backdrop, unengaged; and the products in shops aren’t ‘interacted’ with. Something like that anyway. You can read all about the laws here.
On a final wee note, I noticed in this week’s Enders that young Tiffany Dean was caught by Carol watching daytime TV, ‘made real’ with a brief clip of BBC’s business chap, Adam Shaw. “I didn’t know you were interested in business,” said Carol. Tiff gave one of her trademark ponder-faces. If it’s some incidental TV footage you’re after, producers, I still have that Brookside lady’s number.
© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012